The Dialectics of Aunt Jemima
As a former staff writer for newspapers ranging from Newsday to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I've acquired a certain distaste for letters-to-the-editor sections and am embarrassed that (gasp!) I'm actually writing one. I don't want to sound like some of the bitchy readers who have attacked my articles or op-ed articles in the past, but my fingers cannot resist the need to respond to some of the concerns or fears expressed about the art of Michael Ray Charles ["The Art of Darkness," by Shaila Dewan, June 12].
As an African-American female and a Ph.D. candidate in the UH English/ Creative Writing Department, I am most proud to see a brother find a venue for his art, especially when I know how underrepresented we are at UH and at other graduate schools across the country (and, thanks to Hopwood v. Texas, our numbers will shrink even more, but, hey, that's another subject...). Nevertheless, I mention my distinction as a graduate student if only because I know -- without having met Charles -- that it must not have been an easy feat for him to earn his MFA here, or anywhere else for that matter.
Why? When people of color try to express themselves artistically, whether it's through paintings or a short story, we always seem to be held to some weird type of scrutiny or double standard that I've never, ever seen directed toward my white counterparts. It's bad enough white folks rarely seem to "get it" (as far as the message you're trying to convey through your art), but then black folks expect you, an artist, to cater to some unspoken rule about what is and is not acceptable in the black community. Either way, the artist is denied the right to express him or herself in the way they see fit. Once an artist has their vision manipulated by some outside concern, the work ceases to be art and becomes propaganda.
My ultimate point is that anyone -- particularly a black person -- who has a problem with Charles's work should get over it and check themselves out about why they are so uncomfortable with images that are a part of our history, whether we like it or not. The beauty of Charles's work is that he has embraced what could be viewed as negative and turned it into a positive message, much in the same way black folks have taken the word "nigger" and turned it into a word that we can use and there's no harm done (now, of course, a white person who uses the word is in for an ass-whipping, but, again, that's another story...).
This controversy reminds me of a time when I infuriated a number of my black co-workers at Newsday by telling a joke that I still think is funny: "Q: How does a black fairy tale start? A: 'You motherfuckers ain't gonna believe this shit...' " The problem, according to my black co-workers, was that I shared the joke with white people! (I guess this means white folks shouldn't tune in to black comedy shows on cable TV.) This gets to another point about the race of the people who purchase Charles's work: So what? I have a very tiny art collection of prints that cost me thousands of dollars. I know of only a handful of black folks who have the necessary funds to invest in art. Believe me, if I had some of that Spike Lee money, I'd have a check waiting for Charles right now. So, obviously, socioeconomic factors determine who can and cannot invest in art, correct?
In addition, are we now expected to monitor and record the viewpoints of art collectors to make sure they're purchasing black art for the "right" reasons? "Right" according to whom? Furthermore, I have had a membership at the Blaffer and can't say I've ever seen another black person there whenever I've stopped by to view an exhibit. In fact, I can say the same thing about going to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art or any other museum I've been to in this country. (Okay, I've seen black security guards and a black girl working the admissions desk at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, but I'm not counting employees.) So very rarely -- based on my observations -- do black folks make it a point to show up at anybody's art exhibit. Therefore, I think it's unfair to make this distinction about Charles's exhibit as if to suggest black people are somehow boycotting his work. For goodness sake, I recently traveled to Austin to see the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, coupled with a poetry reading by Kevin Young, a young brother who had written poetry inspired by Basquiat's art. There were fewer than a half-dozen black folks at that gathering, and I'm counting myself and Young in that number. Get the picture?
Anyway, I raise my clenched fist in support of Charles to do his thang any way he wants to do it, because to deny him that right of complete and total artistic expression really sends us back to the days of slavery. Black folks need to get over their shame of the past and recognize that if it wasn't for the mammies, the real-life Aunt Jemimas and Stepin Fetchits, we would not be here. They are the very people who struggled and survived so that I might live and be able to do my own thang when the time was right. That time is now, and I'll be damned if we go back to the days of being silenced. The only difference here is that our own community is trying to put the muzzle on our freedom of expression.
Susan E. Howard
It's interesting to see how different artists and people are treated when making fun of stereotypes. Michael Ray Charles gained the praise of the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly for his portrayal of black stereotypes. To them, it's okay because it's for the most part not their racial or political group. And they wouldn't want to look like they disliked Michael Ray's poking fun at black stereotypes -- why, that would be racist!
I think it would have been great if the Chronicle and Monthly had been as open-minded about a certain political cartoon that ran in the University of Houston's Daily Cougar, where campus Republican stereotypes were assaulted. It got a one-day nasty write-up in the Chronicle and was featured in Texas Monthly's annual "Bum Steer Awards" (without contacting the author of the cartoon!). My point is that I'm always amazed at what is considered acceptable satire in Texas and what is not. I believe Michael Ray Charles best described it as "the nervous laugh syndrome."
Keep givin' 'em hell, Mike, and please, for your next show, think about slamming the stereotypical Texas publication and what they find offensive.
I read with interest and amusement your article "Big Story" [by Jim Simmon, June 5]. I was so happy to see someone else in this city who found Channel 2's style of news delivery to be as compelling and distinctive as I do. You know how Steve Wasserman tells us to "let me hear from you" at the end of each of his editorials? Well, I did just that in December 1995 and again in February 1996. I wanted him to know exactly why I was switching to Channel 11 (after nearly 25 years of Channel 2 loyalty) for my daily dose of news. I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt that Rob Johnson was overdosing on testosterone while suffering from a complete lack of talent, and that Houston really, really does not need an idiot like "Buzz" Rogers grinning like a Cheshire cat across our TV screens with some ridiculous gossip crap.
The fine folks at Channel 2 shot themselves in the proverbial foot when they hired people like Jim Grimes, Susan Lennon and that hard-hitting, super-talented business reporter, Beth McDonough. (She couldn't even begin to fill the shoes that Bebe Burns once walked in. Hell, she couldn't even walk in her shadow for that matter!) And why they ever let that helicopter pilot near a microphone is beyond me. The man sounds like he never attended an English class in his entire life.
As to the song parody that allegedly hurt Hakeem -- well, I just consider the source. Thinking folks know that his could not possibly have been the most important story of events in Houston that evening. That's because thinking folks hardly ever watch Channel 2 news anymore. If Channel 2 felt the need to stick to that theme, then the "Big Story" should have been Hakeem's ability to rise above it all. Hakeem is a living, breathing lesson in humility and fairness. I believe that a lot of it must come from his faith. He is probably more true to his religion than the average Christian or Jew could ever hope to be. He does not flaunt his faith, he simply lives it, which is how it should be. It is one of the myriad of reasons why he is so respected on and off the basketball court.
Too bad Channel 2 cannot claim that kind of respect. I used to admire people like Bill Balleza and Linda Lorelle, but not anymore. I cannot take seriously the people who are practically yelling at me (like a Toyota commercial) in order to get my attention. Something must be seriously wrong with the product for it to be marketed in that manner.
R. S. Clay
It seems that some people have omitted a very obvious and glaring fact of Steve McVicker's "Rough Justice" [May 22]. In the story, McVicker does not portray Mr. Westley as some sort of saint for being killed, but rather raises the necessary question of whether or not Texas was right to kill him when officials had a confession from the real killer. Despite the fact that he was involved in the robbery, to Mr. Westley, it may have been no more than a robbery for which he could serve a few years and then be released. But what happened in actuality proves that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice seems to have some sort of death penalty quotient -- I believe the Chronicle said it is "breaking records" in reference to how many criminals have been put to death this year. And at any rate, there is no justification for killing someone who does not legally deserve the death penalty.
It Was Some Tribute
Mark Commins said in a letter ["Some Tribute," May 10] about the recent Townes Van Zandt benefit: "I know that this was a charity and it may seem mean to complain, but Writers in the Round needs to learn to price their tickets more rationally."
You are correct, Mark. It is not only mean, but shows a complete lack of class. The whole idea of the "benefit" was to contribute to a fund for Townes's kids, and it was successful in that regard, thank you. Benefit concerts mean the performers aren't paid for their efforts, and the idea of the audience benefiting is certainly secondary to the raison d'etre, not to mention that many of the performers in this case were old friends of Townes's who had not been on stage in many years and were admittedly rusty. But they were still caring enough to go for it! Everyone involved should be commended for their efforts instead of being snipped at. I would personally like to commend Writers in the Round and the many performers and folks who donated their time, efforts and energy without compensation to show that some in Houston actually cared!
Karl A. Caillouet
No Mercy for Poor Ezra
This is in response to the letter(s) written to you from the one and only mega-dude, Ezra Charles, in your June 26 issue ["Ezra's (Annual) Lament" and "Ezra's Second Thoughts"].
There's one more thing this poor man can add to his endless talents that nobody else can claim: the ability to toot his own horn. That letter read like a madman at midnight after consuming one hundred cups of java (or whatever) in the height of a manic phase, howling like a dog full of false grandiosity. Goes to show you can't be born with class, and, in Ezra's case, real talent.
And then he really topped it off with the second letter ... what a dude. But who's been talking to this guy? Has he lost touch with reality? I mean, here is this small-time musician claiming that 19 different people in Houston liked 19 different songs. Are we to be impressed here?
I can only hope that poor Ezra gasped in horror when, after pushing the "send" button on his e-mail to send you that shameful letter, he realized what an asshole he had made of himself in the eyes of anyone who even knew who in the hell he was. Ezra, my man, the day I see your name in the top 100 singles in America (or even the top 100,000) is the day I may overlook your pathetic belief in your own sense of wonder. Right now, you're a semi-okay frog in a very small pond.
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